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I received an e-mail from someone the other day who was considering buying a $2500 compressor, but he was new to recording and didn't really know what a compressor is for.
He knew that the compressor is apparently a valuable tool in the studio. But as for what it actually does. Well... can it really offer $2500 worth of value?
There's an obvious answer to this question. But sometimes the non-obvious can be more illuminating.
So I'll turn this question on its head and ask if it is possible to record and mix WITHOUT a compressor?
What can possibly go wrong?
Let's start with an instrument that will record fine just as it is - distorted electric guitar.
To record an electric guitar with wound-up distortion is easy - just place the mic and set the gain. Or use a DI from the output of the distortion box if you really must.
Either way, the level that comes through is pretty much consistent whether single notes or chords are played. The distortion just clips everything at the same level.
To compress a distorted electric guitar is pointless and fruitless. So we have a success! One track layed down and compression not required.
Now let's try the drums.
When recording the drums the first priority is to get the drum set sounding good. Once that is achieved (glossed over that quickly, didn't I?), then the setting of mics is most important.
And when you have done that, hey - you have great sounding drums. No compression required.
Em, but there's a little bit of a doubt here. Although you can get great-sounding drums without a compressor, some of the records you have heard, whose sounds you may want to emulate, sound different. Yes, they used a compressor.
So you find yourself wanting to use a compressor just because someone else has. Is that a good enough reason though?
Now the vocals. Unfortunately your singer isn't trained and they produce different levels in different note ranges. Even so, it's not like they are changing level from second to second - it's only over whole phrases.
So you don't need a compressor. All you need do is ride the fader, either manually or through automation. It takes just a little effort and the vocal can be consistent in level all the way through.
I could go on. But the plain fact is that you do not need compression to make a recording.
There is absolutely not one thing that is forcing you to patch in a compressor.
In fact the only reason why you ever want to use a compressor is because you have heard the effect of compression on other people's recordings and you want to copy-cat that sound.
In the olden days of recordings, compression was necessary because of the restricted dynamic range of the recording medium, and ultimately the restricted dynamic range of shellac and vinyl.
But now, we can record and mix anything we want totally without compression. The only reason we use it is to mimic the sounds of the past.
So, save yourself some money and don't bother buying that $2500 compressor just because you want to imitate someone else's sounds.
Set correct gains and ride levels manually.
That will give you all the compression you ever, technically, need.